Not long after I learned to walk, I learned to ski. Cross-country ski, that is. While kids growing up in the Rockies or the Alps might be snowplowing down the bunny hill at age four, in Wisconsin, where I grew up, the topography is decidedly more horizontal, which meant weekends were spent on snow-covered golf courses with stubby plastic skis on my feet. As I grew, so did my skis and my abilities. After mastering the kick and glide, I learned to read snow and choose the right wax for grip and grew to relish the ritual of crayoning it on my 210-centimeter Splitkeins.
In the early 1980s, an American skier named Bill Koch stepped off the groomed tracks during a race and started skating on the snow. It turned out he could go a lot faster than kicking and gliding. The technique caught on and became known, appropriately, as “skate skiing”. By the next Olympics, designated freestyle races meant competitors could ski however they wanted. Most chose skating. The traditional way of skiing, pioneered by Scandinavian hunters and used for centuries, became known as “classic” skiing and was now decidedly old school — slow and boring, the skiing your parents did.
There are parallels in other sports to the dichotomy between skate and classic skiing. In cycling, there are touring cyclists and road cyclists; on the trail, mountain bikers and hikers; on the slopes, there are snowboarders and skiers; and even among downhill skiing, there are telemark, freestyle and traditional alpine disciplines. Among all of these, there are turf wars, snarky comments, even different fashion.
Classic skiing was now decidedly old school — slow and boring, the skiing your parents did.
It’s the same with cross-country skiing. Go to any groomed ski trail in the winter and you’ll find a wide corduroy swath filled with sleek, Lycra-clad skaters swishing along, their heart rate monitors keeping them in their training zone. Along the side, in the deep parallel tracks are the classic skiers, a mongrel set of Luddites and grannies, shuffling along in their woolen knickers and pom-pom caps, some with wooden garage sale skis and leather boots.
Having come of age during the pre-skate era, I took a defiant view of the newer discipline, stubbornly clinging to the traditional method. Sure, with skating you can go faster, but speed isn’t everything unless you’re competing for a medal. Besides, with skate skiing, you need groomed trails. I like the idea that with classic skis, you can go off-trail and plow through knee-deep snow, exploring new territory. And I was a fast classic skier; I made a point of chasing down skaters and holding their pace, waiting for the look of surprise when they glance over and see me kicking along beside them, never mind that I was redlining my heart rate while they were just cruising.
Despite my traditional leanings, I’ll admit to a twinge of jealousy for skating. It just looked… cool. Finally, this winter I decided to end my holdout and learn to skate. It can’t be that hard, right? After all, I’d been on skis my whole life. I got fitted for a set of skate skis and boots to match, both bristling with exposed carbon fiber; I was starting to see the appeal. After the first snowfall, I eagerly drove out to a groomed trail system, slathered on a layer of glide wax (no kicking required!) and clipped in. Immediately I was four years old again, stumbling, unsure of myself, falling in the snow. The technique that I had observed for years and studied in countless YouTube videos was as unlike classic skiing as rowing a boat is to paddling a canoe. After an hour of this self-imposed torture, newly humbled I returned to the parking lot, tail between my Lycra’d legs, bruised and sore from countless tumbles and the new, foreign movements. Live to ski another day.
Skating was like flying, defying gravity and friction like its ice-borne inspiration.
After consultations with skaters, plenty of reading and more YouTube videos, I tried again, this time with more success. With cross-country skiing, it’s all about balance and faith. In classic skiing, it’s having faith that your wax will grip as you propel yourself forward; in skating, it’s having faith in your ski edge biting into the snow, then leaning out — “tits over skis”, as a skating friend put it — putting your weight out in front of you. Synchronizing the arm motion was also a challenge, differentiating between the subtle V1 and V2 techniques and trying not to bloody my lip with the new, longer poles. But I was getting it.
One day it finally sunk in and I was skating. I wasn’t fast by any means, in fact I was probably going slower than if I had been classic skiing. But I finally understood the appeal; skating was like flying, defying gravity and friction like its ice-borne inspiration. I cruised past a plodding classic skier and called out a greeting, feeling almost smug; perhaps I could grow to love skate skiing.
After this initial success, a warm spell ruined the trails and I swapped ski boots for running shoes for a few weeks. Then one night, it dumped a few inches of sloppy snow, covering the grass again. It wasn’t enough for the groomers to get out yet but I wanted to get back on planks. I threw my beat-up old classic skis in the car and drove to the trailhead. No one was there except for one intrepid skater trying to get an edge on this oatmeal snow. I clicked in and took off after him, the kick and glide coming back to me like getting on a bike for the first time after winter. As I passed the struggling skater, I said hello and he called after me: “wish I was on classic skis today!” Maybe there’s room for both after all.